Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Book #10 - Pudd'nhead Wilson (Mark Twain)


About once or twice a year, I'll wake up at 3 or 4 am and can't get back to sleep.  At some point I realize it's useless to try any longer, so I'll get up and read for an hour or two until I get sleepy and can go back to bed.  Then 30 minutes later my alarm clock will wake me up and I'll be subjected to a long, sleepy day at work.  Well, that happened last night, but I didn't mind the long, sleepy day at work so much because my insomnia allowed me to finish off "Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain.  It was a short, quick read, clocking in at about 160 pages.  

I had mixed feelings about this book.  It was a fun and funny read...Twain is a great humorist, with a phrasing all his own.  It's hard to forget who you're reading when you're reading one of his books.  So that was great, as always.  And the themes of the book - nature vs. nurture, what is race, what is honor - were interesting and well-developed.  But this book, in many ways, seemed somewhat muddled.  The plot is far-fetched and jumps around in odd ways, and many of the characters are not so fully fleshed out.  Apparently Twain massively rewrote the book, and it shows...it could have used another rewrite, or an editor.

Still, the book is a classic, and for several reasons, not the least of which is its treatment of race, which is central to the story (and a timely topic in these days of the Obama campaign).  The novel is set in the small Missouri town of Dawson's Landing, in the year 1830.  The story revolves around a classic plot device...babies switch at birth!  Well, OK, babies switches at five months...but who notices?  No one!  Roxana, a slave who is only 1/16 black, and thus looks white, but is condemned to slavery due to the 1/16 part, is charged with taking care of her own baby (whose father was white, of course) and her owner's son, who was born on the same day.  In fact, the babies look so much alike that only Roxana can tell them apart.  Slaves in Dawson's Landing are constantly threatened with being sold "down the river", which means down the Mississippi River into the deep south, where conditions are much harder.  Roxana decides to switch the babies so that she never has to worry about her son being sold this way.  So she makes the switch and no one notices.  Her son, Chambers, grows up as the owner's son, Tom, while the owner's son grows up as a slave.  Well, her son (who doesn't know he's her son) grows up to be a spoiled, self-centered ne'er-do-well, who beats "Chambers", gambles compulsively, and must rob the good townsfolk in order to pay back his gambling debts.  Meanwhile, the boy who grows up as Chambers, and who's really the true owner's son, is a nice guy, and is always looking out for Tom, even though he's repaid with abuse.  

Twain runs wild with the theme of identity here...what does it mean to be free or slave, black or white, when no one can tell the children apart?  Indeed the whole thing seems a farce.  And it's contradictory to think that the child who is raised in the wealthy, privileged household turn out to be a douchbag, while the child raised as a slave is a humble, good man.  It would be a mistake to dismiss these thoughts with the idea that slavery is long gone, so why does any of this matter.  But these issues do matter, especially today in the age of biotechnology.  How much of each of us is nature (our genes) and how much is nurture (our upbringing) and how do the two affect one another?  These are big issues that science and society are still grappling with...is intelligence all or partly inherited?  What about cancer risk?  How much of our personality and behavior is learned vs. inherited?  What about our morality?  Twain was on to something here, and he deals with it in his usual funny and satirical style.  Too bad he didn't edit parts of the book as much as he could have, though.

Oh, and I still maintain that the title is one of the best in all of literature.

2 comments:

Amateur Reader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amateur Reader said...

The man had a gift for titles. Enjoyed the writeup.